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SummaryOne of the scariest and most atmospheric games ever made
The Good"If it bleeds acid, you can kill it!"
First, a little disclaimer: This game is not based on the horrible 2004 "Alien vs Predator" movie (if anything, it's the other way round, but the distant origin of the franchise is an otherwise unrelated comic book of the same name). Stylistically, the game rather draws inspiration from the original "Alien" and "Predator" movies, most notably James Cameron's excellent and more action-oriented "Aliens" sequel that introduced the "United States Colonial Marines" who play the third faction in this three-in-one game.
It is probably the intense, heart-attack-inducing marines campaign this game is most famous for. However, each faction introduces a whole new style of gameplay, often revolutionary for the first person shooter genre at its time (and sometimes, unprecedented since).
First, there is the Alien campaign. You control one of the nightmarish, survivalist creatures as it defends an ancient alien temple from human intruders. The most unique feature of the alien is its ability to climb every surface, including walls and ceilings, a freedom of movement that is as breathtaking as it is disorienting. Your speed and stealth are your biggest advantage, all attacks are powerful, close-range punches, bites and scratches. Especially gruesome is your ability to bite off an enemy's head when getting close enough and eat your enemies for health (the only HUD element is a white, glowing bar at the lower end of the screen, representing your health points). In normal vision, you can "smell" humans in the dark, represented by a blueish aura. The secondary vision mode is a kind of close-range night vision displaying everything in negative colors. Destroying lights around you (most light sources in the game are dynamic) can turn out to be a good tactic as it makes it easier for you to sneak up to your targets.
While humans are no match for you in close-range, there is a variety of especially annoying long-range weapons (flame throwers and Molotov cocktails set you on fire, for example). The most dangerous opponents, however are not humans but androids (who, by the way, are bleeding the famous "white" blood like in the movies). Androids do not have the "aura" that makes humans easy to spot. They also show no signs of fear and wield their weapons with deadly accuracy. If you bite of an android's right arm, for example, he might pull out a second pistol with his left hand and continue shooting you.
The second creature you get to play is the most powerful of them all: The predator. His motivation is not fear or survival, but honor and the joy of a good hunt. When a group of human scientists captures a fellow predator and his ship, you move out for a bloody trail of revenge. The predator has 3 (!) different vision modes, including the iconic thermal vision from the movies, a red "electrical" vision mode that makes it easy to spot alien creatures and a third, green night vision mode that highlights predator technology. You also have the ability to cloak yourself, which drowns your energy fast. The HUD uses the "predator digits" as seen on the predator's hand-console in the movies, which is a neat little touch. You start every mission packed with a large arsenal of weapons. A powerful wristblade, a speargun (the only weapon with limited ammo from start), the famous auto-targeting shoulder cannon, later a pistol and a homing throwing disk. You also carry medical equipment with you that lets you heal between battles. Basically, the only resource you have to care about is the recharging energy battery. Playing as the predator is probably the easiest mode in the game, but with all the toys you have at your disposal, it also has some of the most fun moments.
And last but not least: The Colonial Marines. I am not exaggerating when I say that the marine campaign features some of the scariest content I have ever encountered in a computer game. Forget mindless gore or Japanese ghost-house games... This game has its own brand of fear. An adrenaline-pumping, heart-attack inducing, in-your-face kind of scariness that goes beyond the mere frustration of games that are just "difficult" (although it is brutally difficult as well, especially in "director's cut" mode).
Your main enemy is the classic alien, attacking you in hordes of screeching, clawing monsters crawling out of every vent shaft and dark corner, in front, above and behind you. Aliens can smoothly climb around walls and ceilings in this game, so you never really know where to look. And they're fast. Like, really fast! Often you just hear one of their heart-piercing screams, see some pixels flickering a mile away, and before you know it an alien is dropping from the ceiling in front of you, jumping 50 meters in a second and landing right in your face. And lets not forget that shooting them doesn't immediately kill them. If you just shoot their arms or legs, they will continue crawling and attacking you. Only a headshot or half a pulse rifle clip will truly kill them, which makes them explode in a fountain of frickin' acid blood that is often more dangerous than the creatures themselves. The most terrifying enemy of them all, however, even more terrifying than the almost unbeatable predator creatures you meet as final bosses towards the end of the campaign, is the facehugger. Crawling on the floor to a distinct sound that will soon make your neck hair stand, those hard-to-spot creatures can kill you in a single blow by jumping right at your face. I have spend entire magazines of ammo, grenades and frantic flame thrower sprays, shooting every corner of a room preemptively, if I just heard the slightest glimpse of a "facehugger sound". It doesn't help that enemies spawn randomly, so you cannot rely on seeing the same enemy at the same spot every time you play. Having a facehugger jump on your screen is probably my #1 most terrifying moment in gaming history. It's absolutely brutal.
Besides the actual opponents, the biggest enemy you face as the marine is light. If you see things clearly, your powerful arsenal of pulse rifles (including the iconic "drhrhrhrhrhrh" sound), grenades, smartguns and flame throwers (later in the game rocket launchers and miniguns) is perfectly sufficient to defend yourself. But most of the time, you just can't see a damn thing! The dimly lit corridors of space stations, colonies and research labs are constantly flickering, going out in the worst possible times or get destroyed by your panicky grenade spams. Now you can either use flares to light up a room (they tend to make a similar hissing sound to facehuggers... which can turn out to be deadly since sound is an important tool to spot enemies) or you switch to night vision mode. Night vision mode is how you spend much of your time in the marines campaigns, but of course, there is a catch: The dimmest light source can blind you nearly completely, which is especially annoying for the many places that aren't lit equally. You also have a slight grain effect on the screen, which makes far away movement of the camouflage-colored aliens hard to spot. You also cannot use night vision and the motion tracker at the same time. Oh yes, the motion tracker... not only does it display everything that moves, so you can never be sure whether it's an alien or just the flare you threw a second ago, the slow, nerve-wracking pulse sound that accompanies the little white dots on the tracker display can drive you crazy and mostly just grant you a split second advantage before the alien comes storming right in front of you.
It's crazy. The marines campaign might use the most classic FPS gameplay out of the three campaigns and most of the actual goals consist of switch-throwing... but at the same time, it is probably the most intense FPS experience ever created. It's quite fantastic!
The campaigns are rather short for a late-90ies game (although probably longer than most of the blockbuster games released today). They are only loosely connected and the story mostly consists of a good reason to get the hell out of wherever you are. But let's not forget that the original Alien movie is nothing but a survival story aboard a big space ship, either. The game is "pure" and intense, capturing the atmosphere of the movies perfectly without trying to spin too much of an "epic" game story into it (I just recently did a review for Half-Life 2 where I criticized how the "epicness" of the story damaged the straight-forward atmosphere of the original game). I actually like the intentionally minimalistic approach, which shows in other aspects of the game as well, for example the text-only game menus.
Aesthetically, the game is a masterpiece for its time. Countless details from the Alien and Predator universes can be found in-game (such as the Predator's glow-in-the-dark blood and various locations from the original Alien movies). The settings are mostly inspired by H. R. Giger's original designs, ranging from derelict space stations to ancient alien temples. Some of the rocky outside levels from the predator levels are looking a little stale, but mostly, the sharp texturing and masterful lighting create an atmosphere that just sucks you in.
Music and sound design are exceptional with a theatrical score that exudes atmosphere and all the original alien and predator sounds perfectly recreated. From the constant "blip" of the motion tracker to the devilish hissing of the alien to the exotic gargle of the predator... it's all there and sounds just as good as in the movies.
I never really had the chance to test the (peer-to-peer hosted only) multiplayer much, but the short time I spent with it was fun. You can play as any of the species in a variety of game modes that let you, for example, have a team of marines fight against a single alien or predator. As I'm writing this, Rebellion is also re-releasing this game with several updates as a "Classic 2000" version, including the promise of proper multiplayer support.
The BadThe game has no in-game saves originally, which is plain insane. You shouldn't play the game without the patch which introduces saving among a variety of other fixes. There are still occasional bugs, like you or your enemies getting stuck in rare places.
The cheesy briefing videos displayed on monitors in-game do little to improve the near non-existent plot (and are apparently replaced by properly acted ones for the "gold edition" and the "Classic 2000" release). While there are bonus missions from beating the game at higher difficulties, many of the campaigns are really short.
You might also say that some parts in the game are ridiculously difficult. Or plain unfair. Not finding a switch or object to destroy at the right part in a mission might leave you wandering around aimlessly for half an hour since some of the missions have a rather maze-like design. Sometimes, it's to easy to fall of a ledge, which can occasionally kill you in the last 10 meters of a game.
The Bottom LineYou can feel how much fun the developers had putting this game together. Or maybe it drove them nuts... I don't really know. All I do know is that AvP quietly revolutionized many aspects of FPS game design, introducing an array of smaller and bigger features that were unique for its time and, in many cases, unprecedented to this very day. Crawling around walls and ceilings as the alien is pretty amazing. As is cycling through the vision modes as the predator or feeling your heart stop beating for a full minute after a facehugger jumps at your screen during the marines campaign.
AvP is also one of the rare games that prove that movie licensed games do not have to suck. This game is in the same category as Goldeneye or The Cronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher's Bay. Like all games that can fill a movie license with creativity, it both perfectly captures the atmosphere of the movies while, at the same time, not falling for meaningless gimmicks. It also feels like a game developed in the tradition of Half-Life, Unreal and other late-90ies FPS games: A design process where programmers and directors could roam free, creating features that sound fun and exciting and then build a game on top of it. Very different from modern gamedesign where everything is built around a definite, perfectly balanced feature-list that does not leave any room for experimentation.
What an unfairly overlooked game. AvP, after all, might actually be one of the best FPS games out there, better than many more popular competitors. And while Monolith's sequel, AvP2 provides more of an actual story, the original sure beats it when it comes to atmosphere and presentation. I'm curious how Rebellion will do with its 2010 reboot of the franchise.
The recently released "Classic 2000" version of this game, available at a bargain price, is sure worth a look for any action or horror enthusiast. It truly is a classic.